When we consider Disney-classic childhood films such as Beauty and the Beast (1991) or Snow White (1937), a common hidden thread linking them together is the anthropomorphic character qualities in which we see a human-relatable attraction be born for ongoing future audiences. Particularly in regards to the application of human-like characteristics to animals, anthropomorphism in this sense tends to have an entertainment value. Presenting itself as being seemingly harmless in cartoon films, the presence of anthropomorphism in reality is an actuality. This seemingly harmless ‘literary’ device not only can instigate dispute due to the representative ethics surrounding animal depictions, but it also begs to question the reasons why it has been applied and further exploited on legitimate animals.
When we see the anthropomorphism of animals go beyond cartoon films and into a non-fictional realm, the judgement of how animals are treated can be put under scrutiny. The controversy of whether they should be treated with human-mannerisms or seen as purely instinctual beings requires a firm belief towards the existence of emotional intelligence in non-human animals. The 2013 documentary film Blackfish acutely explores this divide. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, it focuses on the contentious life of SeaWorld killer whale Tilikum who, “out of frustration” from twenty years of “intense confinement, isolation and lack of emotional and intellectual stimulation,” killed three people in separate incidences (SeaWorld of Hurt, 2017).
John Hargrove was a professional trainer who worked with Tilikum at SeaWorld in Florida and believes that the mistreatment towards killer whales, particularly in regards to confinement, is what led Tilikum to be humanly “domesticated” to produce “family-friendly theatrical settings.“ He states that the corporate marketing strategy had turned these animals into “pandas of the sea, commercial and cuddly” and left little signs of the “complexities of killer whales” (Hargrove, 2015) and the consequences of keeping them in captivity.
What is even more paradoxical is the fact that the trainers were told not to anthropomorphise the animals in order to not give them human sentient (Hargrove, 2015). However, despite this blatant demand, the fact of the matter remains that these marine animals did posses substantial emotional intelligence. Described as a social phenomenon between animals that helps maintain relationships, morality is seen as being integrated into their social behaviour (Bekoff & Pierce, 2009). Interestingly research conducted by David Mech highlights that the pack size of wolves is dependent upon the social attraction factor or rather, how well the wolf can bond. Furthermore as stated, “many animals have the capacity for empathy” which enables them to “perceive and feel the emotional state of fellow animals” (Bekoff & Pierce, 2009). Therefore, through close-knit interactions with animals in social groups, they can develop a knowledge for ‘codes of conduct’ and emotional capacity.
When acknowledging Tilikum’s removal from his pod around two years of age in 1983, it can patent to see the obvious psychological impact that it had on him and how his challenge to bond with other orcas was repeatedly unsuccessful. An orca’s life is governed by emotions and is a critical part of their social existence. The argument put forth after the death of Dawn Brancheau in 2010 that Tilikum’s aggression was an instinctual act is unwarranted. Dr Lori Marino contends that aggressive behaviour in captivity is “not predatory instinct” (Hargrove, 2015) gone wrong – they are in fact definite acts of aggression made by choice in instances where an orca has experienced chronic stress and not learnt appropriate conduct through the family pod. Therefore it is the orca’s environment, boredom, constant training and performance expectations that prompt elevated stress levels and see them react in desperate measures.
Tilikum’s ordeal highlights the unnecessary exploitation of applying human behavioural customs to an idiosyncratic non-human being. Through such depictions of animals in various media mediums, we are endlessly feeding the notion that representing animals as being more ‘human-like’ is favourable. However as evinced from the removal of Tilikum at sea, placement in confinement and overall training as a performer, his frustration provoked his aggressive actions as a means of responding to his own suffering.
Ultimately it is through the deprivation of an animal’s freedom that we see the existence of moral frameworks breakdown. So when considering the anthropomorphic characteristics of Tilikum, it is crucial to retain the knowledge that “being inattentive to their feelings – and their acute sensitivity to environment and their complex relationships with other whales – can potentially be deadly” (Hargrove, 2015).
Bekoff M, Pierce J, 2009, Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals, University of Chicago Press, USA, pg. 4-5
Hargrove J, 2015, Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish, Palgrave Macmillan Publishing, USA, pg. 8, 73, 167
SeaWorld of Hurt, 2017, ‘Blackfish’: The Documentary That Exposes SeaWorld, viewed March 24th <http://www.seaworldofhurt.com/features/blackfish-documentary-exposes-seaworld/>